Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Some Problems with Moral Relativism


Here are some thoughts on CUNY philosophy professor Jesse Prinz's essay "Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response."

Prinz writes in support of moral relativism, and against the existence of objective moral values. He says that moral relativists believe conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. They just occupy different moral worldviews.

"Morals vary dramatically across time and place. One group’s good can be another group’s evil." Sociologically this seems true. It "seems" true only because of the word "dramatically." That is debatable, as Prinz acknowledges while ultimately disagreeing with it. Some cultures like to kill for pleasure. To such cultures killing for pelasure is a moral good. Such a moral good is "good for them." OK. No problem here.

Priniz says that moral variation is best explained by assuming that morality, unlike science, is not based on reason or observation. What, then, is morality based on? To answer this, we need to consider how morals are learned. It's with this turn that he heads towards the genetic fallacy.

For Prinz, objectivist theories of morality fail. Objectivism holds that there is one true morality binding upon all of us. To defend such a view, the objectivist must offer a theory of where morality comes from, such that it can be universal in this way. But I think this is false. Having discovered objective moral values [such as Hitler's killing of six million Jews was morally wrong even though he thought it was morally right], one can reason that God is the best explanation for such values. To do this is not to provide a defense for them, but an explanation. The two are different.

Prinz thinks that the following Objectivist allegation is false: Relativism entails that we have no way to criticize Hitler. His reasoning is:

"First of all, Hitler’s actions were partially based on false beliefs, rather than values (‘scientific’ racism, moral absolutism, the likelihood of world domination). Second, the problem with Hitler was not that his values were false, but that they were pernicious. Relativism does not entail that we should tolerate murderous tyranny. When someone threatens us or our way of life, we are strongly motivated to protect ourselves."

But we cannot, on moral relativism, say that Hitler was “wrong.” Because, as Prinz has already stated, moral relativists believe conflicting moral beliefs can both be true. They just occupy different moral worldviews. I don’t see how, on moral relativism, Hitler can be "criticized." Killing Jews was, simply, “true for him.”

Prinz thinks this Objectivist allegation is false: Relativism entails that moral debates are senseless, since everyone is right. He reasons:

"This is a major misconception. Many people have overlapping moral values, and one can settle debates by appeal to moral common ground. We can also have substantive debates about how to apply and extend our basic values. Some debates are senseless, however. Committed liberals and conservatives rarely persuade each other, but public debates over policy can rally the base and sway the undecided."

But again, if conflicting moral beliefs can both be true, what is the point or hoped-for outcome of having “substantive debates about how to apply and extend our basic values”? Why would we want to do that? Or, would we feel we should do that since one group’s basic values are wrong?

Prinz also rejects this Objectivist allegation: Relativism doesn’t allow moral progress. He reasons:

"In one sense this is correct; moral values do not become more true. But they can become better by other criteria. For example, some sets of values are more consistent and more conducive to social stability. If moral relativism is true, morality can be regarded as a tool, and we can think about what we’d like that tool to do for us and revise morality accordingly."

But is “social stability” good? Surely not good for everyone, since not everyone believes so. So to say that “some sets of values are more consistent and more conducive to social stability” seems no different than saying some weather conditions are more conducive to producing thunderstorms. OK. But so what? Surely a thunderstorm is not an improvement over previous weather conditions. When a thunderstorm comes one does not say “Now we’re making progress.” The very idea of progress makes little sense if there is no shared goal towards which we are progressing, and which we all value. Therein lies a problem with moral relativism; viz.; talking of “progress” without a shared goal that is objective.

He concludes:

"Relativism does not entail tolerance or any other moral value, but, once we see that there is no single true morality, we lose one incentive for trying to impose our values on others."

If moral relativism were true, then of course. Therefore, we should not try to impose our moral values on a Hitler.